Be thou my vision | July 16

Twelve Hymns Project: Be thou my vision, HWB 545

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

“Be thou my vision” is a prayer.  It’s an ancient prayer.  The language feels old.  When’s the last time you were having a conversation and found yourself saying “naught be all else to me save that thou art?”  I haven’t decided yet whether I know what that means.  But we sing it.  One of the wonders of setting our prayers to music is that we say things, we sing things, without having to understand everything we’re singing.  Sometimes the music and the rhythm of the words are enough to make it a prayer.

The English feels old, but the song is Irish through and through, in text and in melody.  What we have is just a translation.  The original is old enough that no one’s quite sure how old.  It may go as far back as the 6th century, words of an Irish poet, Saint Dallan.  Or maybe it was written a couple hundred years after Saint Dallan and just got attributed to him.  The oldest surviving manuscripts of this Irish prayer are from the 10th or 11th centuries.

Before Saint Dallan, around the year 401, a young man and his family were walking along a beach in the Western part of Britain.  They were interrupted by a fleet of boats, Irish warriors.  The warriors demolished the nearby village and captured the young man, taking him back to Ireland and selling him to a local warlord.  The young man’s name was Patricius.

Patricius was enslaved as a shepherd, spending his time in the wild with his master’s animals, exposed to the weather and foraging for food just like the animals he kept.  He did this for six years.  During that time he had an awakening toward the Christian faith he had grown up with.  He prayed constantly.  Feeling led by the Spirit to do so, he fled 200 miles to the south and got on a ship.  He escaped Ireland, back the Britain, went to a monastery to study for the priesthood, found his way home.  And there, after many years, heard a voice calling him to “come and walk again among us.”  He took this as the voice of God, calling him back to Ireland.

Some of the details of his life are about as fuzzy as the origins of the text of “Be thou my vision,” but it seems that Patricius went about his mission work in Ireland by building monasteries which became places of refuge and transformation in an incredibly violent Irish culture.  The monasteries were places of spiritual formation, but also developed their own economies with craftsmen and farmers and cloth makers and artists.  In that economy shepherds were not slaves, but part of the fabric of the community.  A recent article in the Christian Century telling the story of Patricius, Saint Patrick, referred to these monasteries as “outposts of God’s kingdom.”  They provided a vision of the new heavens and new earth already being realized.  In this way, Ireland was converted to Christianity.  (“The gospel in a violent culture,” June 7 issue, p 31.)

Perhaps Saint Dallan, several generations after Patrick, was within one of those monasteries, praying with his eyes open, when he wrote the prayer we have translated as “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart, naught be all else to me save that thou art.  Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping thy presence my light.”

I suppose every hymn is a prayer, but some of our hymns, like this one, are addressed directly to God, using that old word, “Thou.”  This is the seventh of our twelve hymns, and the first to be thoroughly oriented to God in this way.  The other two that will speak not just of God, but to God are “Rain down;” “Rain down your love on your people.”  And “Come thou fount of every blessing.  Tune my heart to sing thy praise.”  In other songs we’re singing to each other: “Will you let me be your servant.”  “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  Even songs like “My life flows on” and “Amazing Grace” are songs that have us proclaiming these things to one another.  They speak of God, but not to God in the second person sense – “you,” “your,” “yours,” or, in our case today, “thou,” “thy,” “thine.”  Even the ultimate Mennonite praise anthem, “Praise God from whom,” the grand finale of this series, is addressed, technically, not to God, but to “all creatures here below,” who are being summoned to do the praising and the hallelujah-ing, Amen.

It’s a good question to ask while singing a hymn.  Who are we singing to?

And there’s part of the catch with prayer, sung or spoken.  Because God, the Divine, the Holy, is no ordinary who.  Not just a larger, stronger, more loving, better version of ourselves.  Those who study and think and write about these things frequently remind us that what we refer to as God is not so much a being as Being itself.  Characterized by perpetual relationship rather than singular existence.  Closer to nothing, no-thing, not-a-thing, than something.

In prayer, we address something, someone beyond our categories.

When we sing, “Be thou my vision,” who, where, what are we talking to?

For the prophet Isaiah, Thou was an overwhelming, life altering vision.  At least that once, told in Isaiah chapter six.

Isaiah was in the Jerusalem temple and saw a vision of a god so large that the hem of its robe, just that bottom part, filled the entire temple, a container far too small for something so grand.  Fiery beings called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”  There is shaking and smoke, and Isaiah is overcome.

The vision is too much, and he is too small, too inadequate to even take it in.  But one of those fiery beings comes over and touches Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar.  A holy kiss.  And that’s enough.  Isaiah is proclaimed worthy.  The voice asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah, perhaps without even realizing it, finds himself saying, “Here am I; send me.”  Isaiah is then commissioned to speak to people who, he is told, will not listen.

Isaiah’s vision involves being overwhelmed, then being assured and comforted, then being sent on a mission that by all reasonable measures, will fail.

Had Isaiah been singing “Be thou my vision” right before this, a wise elder may have leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Be careful what you pray for.”

Rather than converting an entire continent, like Patrick, Isaiah’s prayer sends him on a mission that looks like an exercise in futility.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.”  (Source: The Wisdom of Heschel)

It strikes me that prayer is also a great risk.  We risk that it goes unanswered.  Even more, we risk that it is answered.

“Be thou my vision…Be thou my wisdom….be thou my true word…be thou my dignity, my delight.”

We are those who, in the words of Heschel, have been given the “inconceivable surprise of living.”  But we don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know how to do it.  We are trying to walk in the way of Jesus and resist violence.  Resist being reduced to consumers.  Resist despair.  We don’t know what will result, but we address the Divine, if we dare, as thou.  Or, to update the language, “you.”  It’s intimate language.  The kind of language that opens our hearts.  We do not merely speak of the Divine, we speak to it.  The Glory fills the whole earth, it is much grander than us, and we are as nothing before it, and yet we are invited to address it as “You.”  You be my vision.  You be my wisdom, my language, my dignity.  I am listening.  We are listening.  I to you.  You to us.  We are praying.  To You.  And when we pray, there is always the risk that we will be addressed in return, Patrick and Isaiah sent into the unknown.  Here we are Lord.  Send us?

This place | July 2

Twelve Hymns Project: What is this place

Text: 1 Cor 3:16

Every fall we have an Inquirers Sunday school class.  It’s open to anyone, but geared for adults new to the congregation.  It’s basically an overview of how Mennonites approach Christian faith, plus an introduction to how this congregation does church together.

Most years I use HWB 1, What is this place, as an opening meditation for one of the sessions.  I suppose I could make these newcomers sight read it to see if they can handle the harmonies, but it’s a test I myself would fail, and is likely not a seeker friendly approach.  We do hope some of these folks stick around.  So we look at the words.  We read them through, we talk about how they reflect our theology.

“What is this place, where we are meeting, only a house, the earth its floor, walls and a roof, sheltering people, windows for light, an open door.  Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near.”

The hymn poses a question that it proceeds to answer.  What is this place?  The response de-emphasizes the role of the building as the church.  Followed by an emphasis on what makes the church what it is – people, gathered, who give their attention to the nearness of God.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians saying “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirits dwells in you?” all of those “you’s” were plural.  All of the depth of meaning packed into the temple, Paul taught, was embodied in the gathered community.  The Spirit dwells in our relationships.  This place is a meeting house for the church, for you plural.

We’ve been looking at the stories behind the hymns we’ve chosen as our top 12.  But the story I pursued here was the story behind the placement of this hymn.  Why number 1?  Surely that was a strategic choice.  So I emailed the Managing Editor of the committee which compiled our hymnal 25 years ago.  Rebecca Slough is now the academic dean at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, AMBS, in Indiana.

She responded quickly, and here’s what she wrote:

What is this place” became the first hymn in the book because the committee thought that the theology of the text reflected the Anabaptist/Pietist theology of the sponsoring denominations. It was a song unknown to all of the participating groups, so did not give any sense of priority or preference to one denomination over another. In that way, it was a neutral choice. The fact that it was written by a contemporary Roman Catholic and set to a Dutch hymn tune did not hurt its cause, either. 

So there you have it, hymnal politics.  Or, there you have the reason why What is this place is tailor made for an opening meditation of an Inquirer’s class.  Our worship book leads with a hymn that summarizes key parts of our theology, with an ecumenical punchline.  The song about the importance of people over building is a product of those cathedral building Roman Catholics.

One direction we could take this would be to reflect on how the church, at its best, has never been about the building.  We could note that for the first 200 years of its existence, the church built no structures dedicated solely to worship.  Instead, they met in homes of wealthier members, and in public places, even warehouses.  For 200 years.  One of the first known church buildings was a remodel of a large house, around the year 235, in present day Syria.  Notably, that building was right next to a synagogue.  Jews and Christians worshiping as neighbors.  Both were destroyed in 256 AD by the Persians invading from the east.

It wasn’t until the fourth century, with the conversion of the emperor Constantine that Christians went on a building spree, financed by the treasury of the empire.

We could explore how the monastic movement was in many ways a counter-movement to the growing wealth and power of the church as the official religion of the empire.  Monastic communities built their own structures, including churches, but emphasized a simple lifestyle characterized by work and worship.

We could follow that trajectory into the 16th century where the Anabaptists and Mennonites became convinced that the call of discipleship was not just for monastics, but for all who claimed the name of Christ.  Their convictions put them at odds with an increasingly conflicted and divided Europe, different factions vying for territorial control under different theological brands.  For our spiritual ancestors, building their own churches was low on their priority list.  One Anabaptist martyr noted that they met, “”there where Christ and His apostles held their meetings, in the woods, in the fields, on the seashore, and sometimes in homes.”

On the bulletin cover is a famous cave in Switzerland where Anabaptists worshiped in secret to avoid arrest.

All of this collectively might lead to a de-emphasis of place.  We are sojourners.  The church is the people and the people can meet anywhere, and they have met just about everywhere.

But here’s another angle.  As settled people, worshiping regularly in the same building, I see this song also inviting us to be mindful of the particularities of this place, this building, this neighborhood and city.  The hymn poses a question that bears further reflection.

What is this place where we are meeting?

In the last year this place has hosted worship services, a presentation by Ted and Company raising awareness of suicide, a talk by Drew Hart challenging how we view racism.  This space has been packed to the gills with an event titled Sanctuary for Immigrants 101: Theory, Data, and Action.  This place has hosted weddings, piano recitals, and a Rise up and Resist community concert. Children from the neighborhood are gathering in this place every weekday this summer, from morning till later afternoon through the CRC Kids Club.

This place, this sanctuary, was built by the Baptists from whom we bought the building in 1998.  We liked the feature that we could see each other in worship.  Before the carpet was Mennonite purple it was Baptist red.  That wall is the exterior wall of the original church building, built by the Presbyterians in 1917, 100 years ago.  What we use as a fellowship hall was originally a Presbyterian sanctuary.  At that time this and the foyer were an alleyway running between the church and an apartment building.  The apartment building now serves as the church offices and nursery, and restrooms.

In June of 1933, when this building was a young sweet sixteen, the US Congress created the Home Owners Loan Corporation, for the purpose of reversing the economic woes of the Great Depression.  Its mission was to assist in refinancing mortgages to prevent foreclosures.  The Corporation was asked to look at 239 cities and to create “residential security maps.”  These maps would parse out the safest and highest risk neighborhoods to issue refinanced mortgages.  The map for Columbus was created in 1936.  The homes around this place were classified as an Area A, color coded with green, indicating it was among the most desirable locations for such mortgage assistance.  Areas such as the near east side, Bronzeville, now King-Lincoln, a historic thriving African American neighborhood, were classified as an Area D, color coded with red, indicating they were among the highest risk for mortgage assistance from the federal government, and so got none or very, very little.  This place is now an economically thriving area.  That place and other red-lined areas are still trying to recover.  What does it mean to meet for worship in Area A?  Color coded green.

What is this place?

Just a few blocks south of here the Southwick-Good and Fortkamp funeral home was once the Clinton Chapel, a stop on the Underground Railroad to protect fugitive slaves heading north.

What is this place?

This city, Columbus, is named after a European whose arrival changed the face of this continent.  This place was once the home of mound builders, earth shapers, Adena and Hopewell, white names given to discovered cultures.  It was a hub of a vast intra-continental trading network.  After that this place became a sacred hunting ground for the Iroquois, for a time, barely inhabited by humans.  This place became a temporary refuge for Mingo and Shawnee, Delaware and Miami, coming from other places, to escape or engage the growing French and British influence.   This place is the site of battles and treaties and broken promises.

This place was once the home of megfauna, large animals, who did not survive long after the humans arrived.  The mastodon, the mammoth, the giant beaver, the short-faced bear, the giant sloth, the saber-tooth cat.

This place was once covered with a sheet of ice over a mile thick.  More than once.  Waves of glaciers, over thousands of years, scraping up and depositing minerals, leaving us with rich land, primed for the spread of agriculture.

This place has not always been in this place.  We are still floating on a thin plate of solid rock on top of a thick hot stew. We North Americans are all currently heading West young man at a rate of about an inch a year.

The hymn says: “What is this place, where we are meeting, only a house, the earth its floor, walls and a roof, sheltering people, windows for light, an open door.  Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near.”

This place has quite a story.  We’ve barely scratched the surface.  This place has quite a story, and now we’re a part of it.  For now, we are inhabiting this place.

What is this place asking of us as Jesus followers?  What are its gifts?  What are its lingering wounds?

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

All shall be well… | June 18

Twelve Hymns Project: When peace like a river

Text: Job 29:1-5; 30:16-20

In May of 1373 Julian of Norwich was deathly ill.  Close enough to death that she was given last rites.  No one knows what Julian’s birth name was.  She was an anchoress, meaning she had anchored herself, stationed herself, within a small church cell, itself attached to the larger building, like a barnacle on a rock, or a ship.  This was common in the late Middle Ages.  She had chosen a solitary life of prayer and contemplation, committed to staying in that particular place.  It was a tiny world spent mostly inside the anchorhold, food and water handed in through a window.  But it held a promise of opening one’s mind and soul to the vast expanse of Divine reality.  This is the life Julian had chosen, or the life that had chosen her.

Her cell was attached to the Church of St. Julian, which is where she likely got her name.  The church was in Norwich, England.  Julian of Norwich.

Along with her physical ailments, Julian had been overwhelmed to despair by sin.  It consumed her thoughts.  She felt so deeply about this, she wrote there was no harder hell than sin.  That sin itself was hell, inflicting its own awful suffering.

She was 30 years old, and deathly ill.  While receiving last rites, the priest’s crucifix raised above her, Julian experienced a series of visions lasting several hours.   During this time, she felt engulfed in the love of God.  Just immersed in love.  She saw a vision of Jesus saying to her the words she became most remembered for.  Jesus said to Julian, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

It was an overpowering mystical experience that stayed with her the rest of her life.  She did recover, and lived another 44 years.  Aside from becoming physically healthy, her circumstances changed very little.  With 14th century England in turmoil all around her, reeling from the devastating effects of the Great Plague, engaged in a Hundred Years War with French rulers, she would go on to write about these revelations, living within the confines of her anchorhold on St. Julian’s church in Norwich.  The writings were called “Revelations of Divine Love.”  It’s the earliest known writing in the English language by a woman.  Because of the vastness of Divine Love, which she often likened to that of a compassionate mother, Julian wrote to whoever in the wide world beyond her anchorhold might read her words: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

We don’t know if Horatio Spafford ever heard these words from Julian of Norwich.  Probably not.  But he echoes their spirit when he wrote the hymn that includes the line, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

This is a hymn born out of tragedy.  Chances are if you know the story behind just a couple hymns, this is one them.  Or maybe not.  Today is Father’s Day, and Horatio Spafford is remembered, through this hymn, as one who experienced great loss as a father.

He was a wealthy lawyer from Chicago, active in the Presbyterian church.  He and his wife Anna had four daughters and a son.  They used their home to host meetings of church evangelists and abolitionists, supporting many of them financially.  He was heavily invested in real estate, and in 1871 the great fire of Chicago wiped out most of his wealth.  The same year their son died of scarlet fever.  Two years after the fire, the Spaffords had planned a family vacation to Europe, but at the last minute Horatio had business he needed to attend to.  The rest of the family set off, and he planned to join them as soon as he could.  In the Atlantic their ship was rammed by a British vessel also on its way to Europe.  As their ship went down, Anna was able to grab on to a piece of floating debris and was rescued, but the four girls drowned.  When she arrived in Wales nine days later, Anna sent Horatio a telegram that said: “Saved alone: what shall I do?”

He left Chicago immediately to be with Anna.  On the way, the story goes, his ship passed near the spot where the other had gone down.  Horatio was moved to write this hymn as they kept sailing.  “When peace like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”  The sea billows of sorrow in the first verse are more than metaphor.  He was riding them as he wrote.

Phillip Bliss, who soon after wrote the musical composition, named the tune Ville du Havre, which I have no idea if I’m pronouncing right.  It was the name of the sunken ship.  And the sorrow continued.  Horatio and Anna had another child, a son named after Horatio, who also died of scarlet fever, when he was four.

In brushing up on the details of this story, and deciding to make a link to Julian of Norwich, I hadn’t realized the time span between them  is such a round number.  The tragedy and the hymn of response were in 1873.  It was exactly 500 years after Julian had her vision of Christ that all shall be well.

In looking for a biblical companion to this story, one need look no further than Job.  The scripture declares Job a blameless and upright man, who feared God and turned away from evil.  Job is wealthy.  He is generous with his wealth.  He has many children, seven sons and three daughters.  But Job becomes a pawn in a rivalry between The Lord and the Satan.  In Hebrew, The Satan means “The accuser,” and the Satan accuses Job of being righteous only because of his prosperity and the relative ease of his life.  The Satan challenges the Lord to take away Job’s wealth and his children, and see if the righteous Job still praises God.  The Lord accepts the challenge, and Job loses everything, but still blesses God’s name.  The Satan comes up with another challenge, and the Lord takes away Job’s health, such that he’s confined to a bed, miserable.  Most of the book of Job is poetic dialogue between Job and his three friends, with “friends” in heavy quotes.  These friends spout the prevailing theology of the day to explain Job’s circumstances, which Job eloquently, and sometimes sarcastically, rejects.

And here’s a thread that runs through all three stories – Julian, Horatio and Anna, and Job.  Julian had been loaded down with fear and guilt associated with sin.  Job’s friends defend the orthodox theology of their time, that good fortune is a sign of God’s blessing, and tragedy is a sign of God’s punishment for sin.  What have you done wrong Job, to offend God?  As best I can tell, in what’s been written about their lives, Horatio and Anna were confronted with similar accusations.  When they returned to the US, church leaders suggested to them that their daughters’ fate at sea was God’s punishment against their family for sin.  It was enough to cause them to leave the church.  They eventually formed their own sect, called the Overcomers, and moved to Jerusalem to found the American Colony.  That’s a fascinating story in itself, if you want to look into it.

One wonders if these questions of sin and punishment were already haunting Horatio in the writing of the hymn, or, if not haunting, if he was already pre-empting his “friends” in the writing of verse three.  Our verse three starts with “Redeemed, O the bliss of this glorious thought…” and then sticks with the original lyrics after that.  But the original writing says this:

“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

I’ve always thought it strange that a song born out of grief goes so quickly in this theological direction.  Why did Horatio feel compelled to write an entire verse about sin?  But now knowing this additional part of the story, I’m guessing this is what is going on.  This was perhaps Horatio’s way of expressing what Julian of Norwich and Job also felt they had to declare.  That the pain in their lives was not a punishment from God.  That God was fully aware of whatever sin might be in their lives, but wasn’t counting it against them.

One of the potential challenges of a hymn like this, or a story like Julian, is that it can make the process of grief and sorrow appear too clean, too easily resolved.  One minute you’re on your death bed and wracked with guilt, the next minute you’re caught up in blissful communion with the love of God which alters your consciousness for the rest of your waking days.  One minute sorrows like sea billows are rolling all around, the next minute you declare with gusto “It is well, it is well with my soul.”  The entire life-long work of grief gets condensed into a few lines.

It’s one of the reasons the book of Job is so compelling —  Job’s grief, his exasperation with his lousy friends, his wrestling with God, his protests and shaking his fist at the universe.  This is most of the book of Job.  It is real and it is raw.  And when God finally does appear, it is not a revelation of all-encompassing love.  It is a revelation of the utter tininess of Job’s life and troubles in the vast creation.  The Lord appears to Job in a whirlwind.   It’s not exactly comforting, but it tells another dimension of the human journey through loss and sorrow.  Our ego confronts the vastness of the world outside the tiny anchorhold we thought was the whole of reality, and slowly we come to terms with our small place in the huge unfolding mystery.

To Julian of Norwich, God says “You are everything.”  To Job, God says “You are almost nothing.”  And Horatio and Anna Spafford likely lived between these two revelations their whole life.  And so do we.  I am everything.  I am almost nothing.

We do not come lightly and easily to the place of saying “It is well with my soul.”  But in singing the words over the years, we might come to experience them in new depths each time.

So, just one more thing to tie in here.  And now I invite you to be aware of the comforter that you’re leaning against.  Feel it against your back, look around at others in front of you.  These lovely works have been pieced together and knotted by many of you over the last year.  Today we will end our service by blessing these comforters and singing another of our Twelve Hymns, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  We’ll send them up to Mennonite Central Committee which will send them where they are most needed.  Often they go to refugee camps.  The Spafford family story of losing children en route has been re-lived by many of these refugees desperately fleeing violence.  The places that receive the survivors, like our own country, serve as an anchorhold onto something solid.  These comforters are a small revelation in themselves.  That there is love and compassion, and we all need it.

May it be well with your soul, and may these comforters, wherever they end up, do the very thing they are named for.

 

 

 

 

Endless song: Sacrament, Seeger, and the Sirens |June 11

Twelve Hymns Project: My life flows on

Texts: Psalm 46; 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2

 

Sacrament

Back in the fourth century the great North African theologian Augustine wrote that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward grace.”  It’s a phrase that stuck.  Many Christian denominations still use this as a definition for sacrament.  An outward sign of an inward grace.

Through the centuries the Western Church developed the rituals and meaning of sacraments, eventually recognizing seven: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist or Communion, Reconciliation or Confession, Anointing the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders or Ordination.  These signs are outward.  They are enacted, spoken, even tasted.  They involve material reality: water, oil, bread and wine, bodies.  Through these things, one experiences the Presence of God, an inward grace.  Eventually the church taught that although not everyone had to receive every sacrament, the sacraments were necessary for salvation.

It’s quite a thing for an institution, and its leaders, to hold the means of salvation.  To be the access point for experiencing the grace of God.  That’s a lot of power.

During the 16th century various Anabaptists questioned and ultimately rejected this notion of salvation and the sacraments.  They still practiced many of them, but debated whether they were “ceremonies,” “witnesses,” or “mere symbols.”  The Anabaptists emphasized the life of the Spirit rather than the authority of the institution.  The broader Protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers taught that one need not go through an ordained priest in order to have access to God’s grace.  All this led to a greater leveling of power, a democratization of the sacred.  Later generations of Anabaptists, from whom Mennonite come, rarely used the language of sacraments.

More recently, in 21st century North America, we’re reconsidering the sacramental.  Marlene Kropf, a leading voice in Mennonite worship, has proposed the idea of “Singing as a Sacrament.”  She writes this: “It may be that Mennonite detachment from the sacramental tradition has caused us to overlook what is the most obvious and powerful locus of God’s presence in Mennonite worship: hymn singing…The experience of hymn singing in worship can and does satisfy the deep need for a personal encounter with the sacred in a way that engages the whole person: body, heart, and mind” (Singing: A Mennonite Voice, p. 132).

There will be plenty of time this summer to unpack that idea of singing as sacrament.  As someone who didn’t grow up singing hymns or harmony, I’ve experienced the practice as an acquired taste, and have yet to acquire full proficiency on the bass line.  But I have come to deeply appreciate worship where the congregation is the choir and the body is the primary instrument.  It certainly fits with a theology of community, where the sacred is democratized in the voice and daily life of each person.  The inward grace of each individual is expressed as an outward collective harmony – a sign of peace and beauty in our troubled world.  Augustine is perhaps giving an enthusiastic thumbs up from beyond the veil.

And so I find it fitting that the number one song for this Twelve Hymns series, the first song discussed and the top voted getter, is a song about singing.  “My life flows on in endless song…how can I keep from singing?”

The sermons this summer will take the song or songs of that week as their starting point.  We’ll look more closely at the words we’re singing and their relation to scripture and theology.  Some weeks we’ll look at the story behind hymn, and occasionally we’ll get some commentary on the hymnology.  And along the way, we’ll chew on this idea of the sacramental – song as a vessel for the Divine presence.

Seeger

On Tuesday Phil Hart walked into the church office and delivered the document that became today’s bulletin cover.  It’s the original 1869 text and music for what we know as HWB 580, My life flows on.  It has remained mostly the same after nearly 150 years.  Two of the most obvious differences are a different title, and our current song making what was once the end of a single verse, verse 2, into the chorus now sung after each verse.

A less obvious, but significant difference is the change of one word in that line.  The original says “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.”  HWB 580 says, “Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.”

It’s a change connected to what brought the song out of relative obscurity back in the 1960’s.  Pete Seeger learned about the song from his friend Doris Plenn, who had written an additional verse that said:

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

Our thoughts to them go winging;

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

Peter Seeger included this verse with the original, and changed some of the specifically Christian language to the more universal language of “truth” and “love.”  And with that, it entered the mix of the many folk music anthems of the 60s and 70s that sung of a better world beyond racism, nationalism, and warfare.

If you’re in my generation, or maybe this applies to other generations too, you’re likely more familiar with the Enya version from the early 90’s, which stuck with the Pete Seeger and Doris Plenn lyrics.  Our current hymn is mostly 1860’s with a dash of 1960’s,  although I’d love to see that additional verse about trembling tyrants and friends in prison cells in our hymnals.

For what it’s worth, when Pete Seeger died in 2014, of all the places in Columbus that could have hosted a concert honoring his life and music, it was this sanctuary that was filled to overflowing with folks hearing Bill Cohen and his friends play the Pete Seeger classics.  I was here for most of it, but can’t remember if this one made the cut.

The Sirens

“My life flows on” has a universal appeal, and all versions remain rich in biblical imagery.  We selected two especially relevant passages to be read today.  The chorus “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging” is a lovely summary of the opening lines of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountain shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

The lyric about hailing the new creation is drawn from 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul writes “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  For Paul, the time of salvation was not merely something in the distant future, but something present even now.  “See,” he writes.  “ now is the day of salvation.”

And this gets at one of the overarching big ideas within the hymn.

This is a song about song, and we are indeed the singers, but there’s something else going on with song here that makes this hymn so captivating.  The lyrics start with “My life.”  “My life flows on.”  But as they continue we are directed toward a much larger song.  The hymn is not just the hymn of my life or even our collective life, it’s about “the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.”  It is something to first hear, and then join.  “Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing.  It finds an echo in my soul.  How can I keep from singing.”  Our singing is but a mere echo of the endless song that draws us toward itself.  This is the theological idea that we are not simply moved forward by history, all of the stuff in the past pushing us from behind into what comes next.  But we are drawn forward, lured into the future by the future, enticed by the new creation that calls us toward itself.  Sings us toward itself.  We are led into the space ahead of us where Christ already is.  We hear that far off hymn, and its beauty raises us above earth’s lamentation.

It’s like a reversal of the sirens in Greek mythology.  The Greeks told stories about the sirens who sang beautiful songs from their far off island.  Sailors would hear the songs and sail towards it, only to have their ships broken up on the rocks around the island.  The beauty of the siren song was deceptive.  Its ultimate purpose was to lure one toward destruction.

In the Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus wanted to hear the siren song, but was fully aware of the danger.  So he had all his sailors bind him to the mast of the ship and under no circumstances were they to unbind him.  He was disabled from being able to steer the ship toward the island of the sirens.  The sailors were all protected by putting beeswax in their ears so they couldn’t hear the song.  As they got close enough to hear the sirens, Odysseus becomes entranced with the music and demands his sailors to untie him, but they keep to his original orders, and they sail through and out of range of the sirens, despite Odysseus’ protests.

“My life flows on” seems to flip this story.  We are already close to being dashed against the rocks to our own destruction, but the far off song calls us to itself.  And it is in moving toward that song that we move toward our salvation.  Not merely through the taking of certain sacraments – water, oil, bread, cup — as necessary as these may be along the way, but by participating in that very broadly defined sacrament of song.  It is a universal song, that draws activists and office holders toward it.  People in the pews, and people in the streets.   It is this song that rises above earth’s lamentation, of which our singing, as powerful as it may be, is merely an echo.

 

 

The Spirit of truth | May 28

Texts: John 14:15-17; Acts 1:6-14

 

Last Friday the New York Times published an essay titled “We aren’t built to live in the moment.”  The authors point out that none of the things we’ve previously proposed that set humans apart from other animals actually do.  It turns out language, tools, cooperation, and culture aren’t unique to us.

But, they argue, there is a defining characteristic that sets us, humanity, apart: “We contemplate the future.”  They write: “Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to ‘commencement’ speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.”

The essay goes on to weave insights from psychology, brain science, and various forms of therapy to make its case.  Much more than looking back at the past, we seem to direct most of our mental energy toward anticipating the future and adjusting our behavior accordingly.  We do the things we do and feel the things we feel because of the kind of future we anticipate, sometimes the one just seconds ahead, sometimes years and decades.

Our future mindedness impacts even the way we form and reform memory.  Rather than being an archive of past events that remain stagnant, the brain has a way of continually rewriting history.  New contexts, and the kind of future we anticipate add fresh content to past events and change the way we remember them.  The essay states: “The fluidity of memory may seem like a defect, especially to a jury, but it serves a larger purpose. It’s a feature, not a bug, because the point of memory is to improve our ability to face the present and the future. To exploit the past, we metabolize it by extracting and recombining relevant information to fit novel situations.”

These authors propose that our gaze is a forward gaze, even when we seem to be looking back, and that’s what makes us uniquely human.

The essay comes out at the same time we are pondering this text from John 14, when Jesus is speaking to his disciples, anticipating his own death.  It was the lectionary reading for last week, but since we asked our new members to give commentary on their own faith journey rather than an exegetical study of the day’s lection, we’re carrying the John 14 passage forward into this week alongside this week’s lection of Jesus’s ascension in Acts 1.  ­­­

With his crucifixion looming just days away, a future Jesus has already determined he will not avoid, he tells his companions he will send them the Spirit of truth, to be with them forever.  The Spirit gets referenced in all kinds of ways throughout Scripture, but here it’s specifically referred to as the Spirit of truth.

In a time when we are discovering the fluidity of memory, we also seem to be encountering the fluidity of truth.

Truth is getting a lot of press these days.  It’s made its way from the Religion section to the front page.  A few years back Steven Colbert proposed the term “truthiness” as a sign of the times.  More recently, commentators have wondered whether we are in a post-truth society where alternative facts, fake news, and pure opinion rule the day.

So when John tells of Jesus offering the Spirit of truth, it has a fresh kind of urgency to it.

The word truth appears over 100 times throughout the Greek New Testament.  It’s a common word.  But I somehow missed until this past week what the word evokes.  It goes all the way back to Greek mythology.  So, on this Ascension Sunday, when Jesus rose into heaven, please come with me on a very brief tour of Hades, which I’m sure, is the reason you came to church today.  Hopefully it will help us discover something about the truth.

In Greek mythology, there are multiple rivers in the underworld of Hades.  Of these, the river Styx has the most name recognition, aided by the 70’s rock band that took on that name.  The river Styx served as the boundary between Earth and the underworld, the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.  In the Greek imagination, the newly deceased were ferried across the river Styx to the entrance of the underworld.

Another river within Hades was the Lethe, and this is reason for the brief tour.  Its waters were shallow, not for ferrying, but for drinking.  The Lethe was the river of forgetfulness.  The dead would line up along its shores and were required to drink from the Lethe in order to forget the life they had just lived.  The Lethe was a meandering, murmuring river, peaceful.  When one departed the earthly life, its waters wiped away memories both painful and joyful.

This concludes our brief tour of Hades.

John writes that Jesus offers his followers “The Spirit of truth.”  The Greek word for truth is alethea.  The prefix “a” is a negative, as in “un” or “non.”  It negates whatever comes after it.  A-lethea.  And we know what lethe means.  We were just there.  It’s that river of forgetfulness.  It’s where you drink to forget what it has meant to be alive.  Truth, a-letheia, means the undoing of forgetfulness.  To do truth is to un-forget.  The Spirit of truth is the spirit of un-forgetting.  It negates the ultimate negator: forgetfulness.

Built into this concept of truth is the understanding that there is a wide stream of forgetfulness that flows not just through the land of the dead, but the land of the living.  Well before we breathe our last, we all drink from the river Lethe.

We forget who we are.  We forget where we come from.  We forget where we belong, and that we belong.  Not to mention we increasingly forget where we put our keys, but that’s another story.

In forgetting, our consciousness gets colonized by whatever is around to tell us who we are.  To tell us where we belong, or that we don’t.

And so here’s where we seem to be.  We are creatures who are future minded.  We contemplate and anticipate the future like no other animal.  These abilities have brought us to the point we are now in history.  They impact how we go about our days.  Even our past experiences can be shaped and molded by the kind of future we imagine.  Even what I’m saying now was put down with thought toward how it might relate to what might come next.  Our gaze is a forward gaze, however subtle it might be.

And yet we have been given the Spirit that would have us not forget.  The Spirit of a-lethea, the Spirit of truth.  “It will be with you always,” Jesus said.  It speaks of a reality that undergirds and makes possible everything else.  It preserves and seasons and enriches and guides.  It keeps us from forgetting what we must not forget in order to truly live.

So where does the Spirit of truth direct our gaze?  Is it a gaze backyard, forward, always both at the same time?  Is it working against or with our tendency to always be glancing ahead?

There’s another gaze going on in the Acts scripture for today.  It’s the one of the disciples gazing up into heaven.  Jesus had been appearing to them off and on after his Easter resurrection, but this is the final time.  He leaves them by ascending up into the heavens.  And they’re left there gazing up.

This story is a cosmological conundrum for us living on the other side of the Copernican revolution.  We no longer conceive of our world as a three tiered universe: the earth and underworld surrounded below by the deep seas, and above by the heavens.  In a universe in which we’re no longer in the center, up extends out in all directions depending on where you’re standing on the round earth, and satellites are yet to locate a place called heaven, it’s tempting to get hung up in the disconnect between premodern and contemporary ways of making sense of the world.  Ways of speaking truth.

What’s the truth here the author is trying to communicate?  What must the disciples and we not forget about who Jesus was and is in order to live truthful lives?

Just as the underworld played a key part in the pre-modern mind for the meaning of death, the heavens played a key part for the meaning of life.  What happened in the heavens had direct impact on the land of the living.  Whoever was or wasn’t exerting influence up there played itself out it what happened down here.

This story of the ascension has brought theologians to speak of the Cosmic Christ.  The Christ who was in the beginning, is now, and will continue to be.  The Christ who Jesus embodied, but is not limited to the short lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth.  The ascension means that everything Jesus represented: mercy, healing, boundary shattering love, relentless truth telling, is a force making itself available to the universe on a cosmic scale.  It has ascended, or to put it in more philosophical language, it permeates the very fabric of Being itself.  It is cosmic.

But most of the time we don’t live on a cosmic scale.  We live in our earth bound fleshy bodies, oriented toward our little future, trying not to forget.  We wake up each morning to the first day of the rest of our lives and do what we need to do for the day’s work.  We gaze back, we gaze up, we gaze forward.

In a world permeated by the cosmic Christ, with the Spirit of truth ever with us, the living of our days hold out the possibility of being enriched from all directions.  To un-forget that we are first and foremost beloved children of God.  To live into a future in which the kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven.  To consider that we, like the disciples, are witnesses to all this.  To participate, even in small ways, in this great cosmic unfolding.

Deeply personal, radically communal | May 14

Text: Psalm 23; Acts 2:42-47

The sermon today and next week will be multi-voiced.  We’ll be hearing from our new members.  I’ve gently suggested they keep their sharing brief, so I’ll follow my own counsel.

Today’s scriptures speak of a faith that is deeply personal and radically communal.

Psalm 23 proclaims God as a shepherd.  And not just any shepherd, but my shepherd.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”  How many people have recited these lines through the millennia?

And who doesn’t need shepherded?  Is there anyone out there who has it all figured out, knows exactly where they’re going and why?  Does anyone always know the way to green pastures and still waters?  Most of the time we’re stumbling in the dark, or, as the Psalmist says, in “the valley of the shadow of death.”  It doesn’t say we avoid the valley or the darkness.  It says we are accompanied through it, and that we need fear no evil.

There is a dimension of faith that is deeply personal, and there are paths we alone have to walk.  Psalm 23 proclaims that when we do, we are accompanied by the great Shepherd, with goodness and mercy trailing close behind.

And there is a dimension of faith that is radically communal.

Acts chapter 2 gives a summary of life in the early church.  “Awe came upon everyone,” Luke writes.   “All who believed were together.”  They “had all things in common.”  “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Radical is perhaps an overused word.  It means to get at the root of something.  For the early Jesus movement, the root of faith included an economics of sharing, and a life oriented around community.  We Mennonites are the heirs of the Radical Reformation in 16th century Europe.  The Anabaptists set their sites on digging down to the root of faith, which rested in the life and teachings of Jesus.

In our highly individualized society, we hunger for community.  Community gives us life, but it also asks of us.  It asks that we participate in the Divine economy of sharing, that we give, and receive, and thus flourish together.

The Lord is our Shepherd.  Jesus is at the root of our faith.  We are welcomed into, formed within, and challenged by the community of faith that bears his name.

Nehemiah’s Action | April 30

Texts: Mark 3:1-6; Nehemiah 5:1-13

These shirts are going to be great for BREAD gatherings and the softball team and Pride parade and other events, but my favorite part is that I can get away with wearing a tshirt to church once a year.  Very comfortable.

Tomorrow evening members of 40+ congregations across Franklin County will gather at the Celeste Center at the fairgrounds.  We are white, black, and brown;  Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, Unitarian Universalist.  We’ll be joined by public officials with whom BREAD has been in conversation over the last months, and in some cases years.  We’ll ask them to publicly commit to working with us to achieve some very specific solutions to problems we’ve been researching.  Such as: creating a municipal ID card for immigrants and homeless folks to better access city services; preferential contracts from the city for companies that employ workers with criminal records who otherwise find it nearly impossible to get a job, and implementing restorative practices in Columbus City Schools to reduce suspensions and the school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects people of color.

These are all big issues, each one, and I frequently wonder if BREAD bites off more than it can chew each year as we collectively decide on the next area in Franklin County we want to focus our energy and power.  But BREAD has a track record for getting things done.  We helped create a land bank that demolishes homes on abandoned properties.  We worked with the Mental Health board to open a clubhouse that creates community and opportunities for folks living with mental illnesses.  And members of this congregation were influential in helping create restorative justice circles as a way of diverting youth from the juvenile court system.

Since December I’ve been serving on the steering committee for the current campaign for restorative practices in the schools.  BREAD asks a lot of us, and I’ve found it at times exhausting and exasperating, but overall, overall to be one of the best ways we have available to us, Columbus Mennonite Church, to be in solidarity with people across the county most affected by these problems, and to affect systemic change, as slow and incremental as it may be.

This big public gathering tomorrow is called the Nehemiah Action.  It’s called the Nehemiah Action because it is modeled after the narrative of Nehemiah chapter five in the Hebrew Scriptures, a common text for Jews and Christians.  So I’d like to walk through that passage together to see what it has to say and how this applies to the work of doing justice.

The passage is printed on the back of the bulletin insert, but first let me just set it up a bit with the historical context.

Painting with very broad strokes here: The Hebrews , the children of Israel, were formed as a people through enslavement under Pharaoh in Egypt.  Moses emerges as a leader who has an encounter with the god Yahweh.  Yahweh delivers the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of slavery, and through Moses gives the people the Torah, the law, the teaching.  And the aim of the Torah is the creation of a people who live under the laws of justice and love of neighbor as this kind of alternative society to the ways of Pharaoh.  The Israelites settle in the land of Canaan, they have judges and prophets and kings who lead them, they build a temple to Yahweh, but after about 400 years of kingship the holy city, Jerusalem, is conquered by the Babylonian empire under the rule of Mr. Nebuchadnezzar.  The temple is destroyed, and the people are carried away in exile, with only the poor left behind to work the land.  50-60 years later Babylon is conquered by the Persians, under the rule of Cyrus the Great.  The new Persian policy, by decree, is to encourage all these different ethnic groups under its rule to establish their own religious practices and local governance in their homelands.  So over the following decades many of the Jews, as they’re starting to be called, return to the area around Jerusalem.  They rebuild the temple, and they rebuild the protective wall around the city.  Nehemiah comes on the scene as a governor of Judea about 100 years after Cyrus’ initial decree.  We’re in the mid 400’s before Christ.

That’s the back drop of Nehemiah chapter 5.  There’s a rebuilding process going on after a massively disruptive and traumatic period.

Nehemiah 5:1 states, “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin.”  Let’s pause here right away, and not get too hung up on the sexist language of “the people and their wives,” who apparently weren’t a part of “the people.”  That’s reason for its own outcry, but that’s how it was…The prevailing event of this first verse is “a great outcry.”  There is a crying out going on, a collective raising of the voice, signaling something aint right.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the outcry has an essential place in the redemptive work of God.  Way back under Egyptian slavery, the very first action to counter Pharaoh is that the people groan and “cry out” under their oppression.  It is this crying out that activates Yahweh, who “hears their groaning, and remembers the covenant with their ancestors, Abraham and Sara; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, and his collection of wives and reproductive partners.  It is the cry, the outcry, of those experiencing hardship that initiates the movement, activates new possibility.  The cry awakens the consciousness of those previously unaware of the pain, alerts even God to the injustice, and causes God and those tuned in to the spirit of God to remember who they are and what they are to be about.

There’s a specific cause of the outcry in this chapter.  There’ve been some poor harvests, and people need to feed their families, and those with means are requiring those in need to put up their fields and houses and vineyards and children in pledge for grain.  The only way to get food was to offer your dearest assets as collateral, your land, the labor of you and your children.  And once those are gone, you’re stuck in debt slavery.  And it is their own kin who are doing this.  The people say in verse 5: “we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves…we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.”  A key purpose of the Torah was to keep this kind of thing from happening.  To not become like Pharaoh’s Egypt.  But it’s happening.  Aaiigghhh.  We’re crying out.

Outcry can awaken the consciousness of those within earshot of the pain.  It is the first signal that something is not right.  It can help us to remember our covenant and commitments.  It’s the first key moment of this story.  The outcry.

A second key moment is this appeal from the people in the first part of verse five: “Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children.”  This assertion of a shared humanity, a common value for life, is at the basis of morality.  “Our children are the same as their children.”  You can almost hear the chant “Black Lives Matter” as a direct descendant of this.  Or, “Refugees welcome.”  “Our children are the same as their children.”  Theologically, we also say that we are all created in the image of God, or that we are all children of God.  This moment is what makes the cry of the other a shared concern.  If we have the same flesh, and our children have the same value and aspirations, we are tied up in a common reality, and your cry becomes a part of my story.

Believing this is a vulnerable way to live, and can become overwhelming without being grounded in the Source of Being and goodness and life which we call God.

There’s the outcry, and the appeal that this affects all of us.

Verse 6 is a pivotal part of the story.  Nehemiah says, “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these complaints.”  This is the moment when the cry from the outside makes its way inside and lodges itself within the hearer.  If you hear the outcry, really hear it, you might get angry.  You might, like Nehemiah, get very angry.

I don’t know when it was in life that I was introduced to the idea that anger can be a constructive motivating energy, but it still goes against just about all of my peaceful Mennonite-ness.  I don’t particularly like being angry, and I just generally feel like a better person when I’m not angry.  I have even prided myself on being not angry.  The not-angry white guy.  Anger sometimes feels like a failure of will.

Hebrew is such a visceral language.  The literal translation for anger is usually to have burning nostrils.  They don’t say “she was angry.”  They say, “her nostrils were burning.”  Even God gets hot nostrils when God is angry.  Anger is hot, fiery, felt in the breath.

Anger is a powerful force.  It can be destructive.  We included the Mark 3 reading today because it’s the only time in the gospels when it explicitly says that Jesus was angry.  Jesus is in the synagogue on a Sabbath and he brings forward a man with a withered hand.  And he asks everyone if it’s lawful to do good or to harm on the Sabbath.  And everyone is silent because there were strict laws about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath.  The only time in the gospels when it says that Jesus was angry is when people are offered an opportunity to do good, and they are silent.  Mark says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.”  How many paintings have you seen of an angry Jesus?  Not many.  Jesus proceeds to invite this man to stretch out his hand, which is restored.”  Jesus harnesses anger as an energy for healing.

Jesus gets angry. Nehemiah gets very angry.  At BREAD house meetings in the fall we are asked the question, “What makes you angry?”  How we answer this question helps determine the area of focus for the coming year.  I’m trying to get better at getting angry in a Jesus kind of way.

What makes you angry?

Nehemiah does something with his anger.  Something big, and, ultimately, healing.  He does not hold his anger in, and does not try to deal with it as an individual.  Verse 7 says he called a great assembly. This great assembly includes the people affected by the problem, the ones who gave the initial cry, and the people with power to change the problem — the officials and, “the nobles.”

Nehemiah has already lost his Mennonite cred by becoming very angry, but he goes a step further and speaks plainly in the face of conflict.  How terrifyingly strange.  He tells the leaders “The thing that you are doing is not good.”  This is the point in the program where I start looking down at the floor, or remember I need to check my phone for something.  But I’m learning there’s a difference between attacking someone’s personal character, which this is not, and calling on someone to uphold their public duty to serve all people, which this is.  It’s a point where the tension that the people have been feeling in their lives is now made public, put out in the open.  You can feel the tension.

Nehemiah gives specific suggestions for how to address the problem: Verse 11: “Restore to them, this very day, their fields , their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the interest on money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.”  It’s a pretty direct and specific request, complete with a tight timeline.  This very day!

The very first Nehemiah Action turns out to be successful.  In front of that great assembly, accountable to the people they’ve been entrusted to lead, the officials agree to these requests.  They listen, and change course.  They are restored to their higher calling.  Nehemiah goes one step further and ensures there will be proper follow up to see it all happens.  The whole assembly ends with a collective Amen and expressions of praise.

And every Nehemiah Action since then has gone just as smooth and been just as successful.

We are hoping for as many of us as possible tomorrow evening to represent Columbus Mennonite, but whether you come or not, this story has something to say.  Are we willing, are you willing, to listen for the cry, wherever it comes from?  To nurture the kind of consciousness that acknowledges we are all one kindred and our children are of equal value.  And as you experience anger at whatever it may be, to do the difficult and necessary soul work that enables that nostril burning anger to be an energy that leads toward healing, in the spirit of Jesus, and not destruction.  To find a great assembly that takes you out of isolation.  A group that sings and praises together no matter the outcome.  To see this kind of solidarity as a continuation of your faith in the God who delivers slaves out of bondage, in the Christ who invites us out of our guarded silence.  To join in spirit and in body with the great cloud of witnesses dead and alive who witness to the divine reign of justice and peace that is already being realized among us.